Licenses Cross the Line

Abraham D. Sofaer, a former U.S. district judge and former legal advisor to the State Department, is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

In any law-abiding society, people known to be in the country illegally would be detained and deported. But not in the United States, where immigration laws are so poorly enforced that the normal and expected have come to be regarded as inconceivable and impractical, and the illegal has been accepted as proper.

Consider the driver’s license bill, which then-Gov. Gray Davis signed into law in a desperate, eleventh-hour effort to appeal to Latino voters. The law -- which allows illegal aliens to obtain driver’s licenses despite their status -- is indefensible, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is absolutely right to seek to repeal it.

The arguments in favor of the law are completely inadequate. First is the claim that enabling illegal immigrants to obtain licenses will lead to greater safety on the roads because they will learn to drive properly, pass the required driving test and get insurance. But illegal immigrants can already get driver training, and any responsible person intending to drive would do so regardless of the availability of a license.

Further, nothing in the legislation requires the immigrant driver to obtain insurance.


Proponents of the driver’s license law claim that illegal aliens with licenses will be less likely to engage in hit-and-runs and more likely to cooperate with police in criminal investigations than illegal aliens without licenses. This is hardly demonstrable: Those illegal aliens unwilling to face the risk of deportation will run away from accidents whether or not they have licenses because the license will not legalize their presence.

The most serious threat doesn’t have to do with driving at all. It is that issuing licenses to illegal immigrants will make it easier for them to engage in illegal activities, including terrorism. That’s why the California State Sheriffs’ Assn., which supported Davis in the recall campaign, opposed the legislation.

Seven of the 9/11 terrorists illegally obtained and used Virginia driver’s licenses in committing their attacks, causing Virginia to amend its law to now require verifiable proof of identity.

Security experts view the driver’s license as the most important of all identification documents. It is used by people to get jobs and open bank accounts and, most significantly, to enter secure areas in airports.


The FBI formally advised Congress in June 2003 that enabling aliens to obtain driver’s licenses on the basis of unreliable identification posed a “potential terrorist threat.”

“Once in possession of a driver’s license,” FBI Assistant Director Steve McCraw testified, “a criminal is well on his way to using the false identity to facilitate a variety of crimes,” including fraud, money laundering, terrorist financing and actual infiltrations and attacks.

Those who support the new law argue that identity can be established adequately if the license-seeker produces a tax ID number, a foreign birth certificate (or consular confirmation of birth) and one of the following: a “matricula consular” -- a fingerprinted photo card -- document issued by the Mexican government or foreign passport or foreign driver’s license.

The IRS, however, has warned against using individual taxpayer ID numbers as a basis for issuing driver’s licenses because the agency makes no effort to ensure the identity of people paying federal taxes. Foreign birth certificates are notoriously easy to fabricate. And the FBI considers the matricula consular unverifiable.


Those who advocate issuing licenses to illegal immigrants say many are hard workers who have earned the “right to drive.” That’s patently absurd. People who come to this country to work do so because it is in their own pecuniary interests, not because they are heroes who have earned any rights, let alone the right to drive.

If the Legislature does not rescind the measure, the people of California are likely to vote to repeal the law at the earliest possible time.

The federal government might well develop legislation that overrides the policy that California has adopted because of the enhanced threat it creates for national security. Or other states or airlines may refuse to accept California driver’s licenses as adequate identification.

Meanwhile, what Californians should be doing about the illegal worker problem remains undone. The truly respectful thing to do for illegal workers whom we want to come to this country and for whom jobs are available is to legalize their presence.


President Bush, before 9/11 derailed him, was ready to develop a program that would enable foreign workers to come to this country, work and do other things that legal residents are allowed to do, and then return to their countries of origin. They would be able to do this safely, without sneaking across the border and with the dignity due them as human beings. It’s the right place to start.